A challenge in writing any biography is to identify a thematic center, and finding such for 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards proved especially challenging, according to biographer George Marsden.
"Jonathan Edwards' life is particularly complicated, with many angles. He was into everything," said Marsden, describing his subject as a great theologian, philosopher, pastor, preacher, awakener during the Great Awakening, defender of the Calvinist and Puritan heritage, Biblicist, missionary to the Indians, educator and family man.
Marsden spoke at Samford University Nov. 11 after receiving the 2004 John C. Pollock Award for Christian Biography presented by Samford's Beeson Divinity School. The award, named for the British author of more than 30 books on religion, mostly biographies of Christian leaders, was established in 2001 to encourage the writing of Christian biographies.
Marsden, professor of American religious and intellectual history at the University of Notre Dame, received this year's Pollock award for his book, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, published in 2003 by Yale University.
"I am humbled to receive an award for simply doing what I like to do," said Marsden following comments by Beeson divinity dean Dr. Timothy George and Samford president Dr. Thomas E. Corts.
In order to make Edwards' story interesting, Marsden said, it was important to understand his life in his own time and place. Edwards, who lived 1703-58, died before the American Revolution was in the minds of anyone. "He was a British citizen loyal to the British crown. At the time, political affiliation was closely tied to religious affiliation, and Edwards was shaped by his Protestant British political loyalties," observed Marsden.
A Connecticut native who became a pastor in Massachusetts, Edwards--known by many today for his oft-published "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon--lived in New England at the intersection of three competing cultures: British Protestant, French Catholic to the north in Quebec, and various Indian cultures in between.
"All three were competing for the same territory, and in his day, it wasn't obvious that the British Protestant culture would win," said Marsden. "Edwards lived in tense political times."
Incidents related to his concern for evangelizing the Indians indicate that his life was filled with drama. "Once you put these stories together, you see that despite his personal reserve, he was a passionate, affectionate person, driven by his concern that eternity rests for each individual on their relationship to God," said Marsden.
Marsden cited several things Edwards can teach those living in the 21st Century. The most important, he said, is to note that "Edwards always begins with God."
"Many Christians today start with their own understanding of human needs and moral principles, and then tailor God to fit," said Marsden.
Also, Edwards always starts with the dynamic, loving God of personal relationships. The creation of the universe is an ongoing, intimate process of God communicating his love to his creatures, said Marsden.
Edwards was responding to the 18th-century Deists who believed God created the universe, made it right in the first place, and then distanced Himself. Edwards' theology, rather than distancing God, puts God more intimately related to the universe.
Edwards, he said, kept a notebook of reflections on how the beauty of Christ's love is revealed in everything in the beauties of the universe.
"Some of his most profound reflections deal with our allowing material desires to block our vision and our hearing of beauty around us," said Marsden. "We must get a glimpse of the beauty of God's love revealed in Christ. Once you get a glimpse of that beauty, then you cannot help but be drawn to it."
Marsden's biography of Edwards has also won the Bancroft Award presented by Columbia University for the best book on American history and the Merle Curti Award given by the Organization of American Historians for the best book on American intellectual history. Marsden is the author of 14 other books and numerous book chapters, scholarly articles and book reviews.